The Law of Liberty

On my way to finding something else, I discovered the following:

In classical Greek thinking, Liberty is not possible without Law. The law gives us the limits in which liberty is both sought (by individuals) and given (by the city-state). In other words, in a Classical Greek perspective, liberty outside of law doesn’t even make sense. Now, let me point out that if you go rooting around classical Greek texts or commentaries on Plato in English, you probably won’t find this because of the translation of the two words involved. “Liberty” (ελευθερία — eleutheria in Greek), is translated “freedom” in Classical Greek studies. Similarly, “law” (νόμος — nomos in Greek) is translated “polity.” So what Schlier actually says is “This gives us the limit within which freedom is to be sought and given, namely … the polity [of the city state].”

Aristotle famously said that a person who lives outside the polity (ie, law) of the city-state is reduced to something subhuman, something more akin to animal than person. It is the rules and relationships that give humans their foundation for being human. This is true for slaves as well as freemen. In fact, this is the typical usage of eleutheria; it refers to the state of the freeman, which is the opposite of the state of bondage in which a slave finds himself. So freedom from bondage is not freedom from rules, but rather freedom to live under a different set of rules. Freedom from rules is a less than human condition.

James uses the term eleutheria twice in his epistle and in both instances connects it to nomos; that is, “the law of liberty” (or in a more classical rendering, “the polity of freedom”).  “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing” (1:25). And also, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). That phrase “law of liberty” sounds like a non sequitur in our ears, for “law” and “liberty” are at odds in the Liberal or Libertarian political theory that undergirds the founding of the United States. Even in the French version it is a bit of a non sequitur because it is brotherhood (fraternité) and equality rather than Law that balance liberty. But when liberty is understood in its Greek cultural context, it is actually somewhat redundant. Liberty, as James clearly assumes, requires Law.

Source: Heinrich Schlier, “ελευθερία” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Walter Bauer & Gerhard Kittel, Trans by Gerhard Kittel and Geoffrey Bromiley, II:487ff.


Towers, Ladders, and Muddled Metaphors

I received an email in response to my most recent essays (“The Self-Discipline of Faith,” and “Pelagius – Beyond the Jargon”) from Romanos, an Orthodox reader, who was shocked at my evident ignorance of John Climacus, one of the most important spiritual writers in Orthodoxy. In truth I have a draft of an abandoned essay on just that subject, explaining how Pr. Matt Richard in his article opposed to what he called “ladder theology,” muddled his metaphors. I abandoned the essay because it seemed petty to disagree with Richard yet again on what I took to be a relatively insignificant point. But, it’s probably not an insignificant point to readers who are acquainted with and appreciate the classical spiritual writings of the Christian Church but aren’t so familiar with Evangelicalism.  So, let me try to unmuddle a metaphor and defend the Ladder.

In the article, Let Us Say Goodbye to Ladder Theology!, Pr. Richard makes the extremely important and timely point that the direction of salvation is from God to us. God comes to us to give us new life; we do not (we cannot!) go to God. Richard illustrates this point by saying there is no ladder up to God. It’s here that he muddles his metaphors, because the biblical metaphor for man trying to reach God (or possibly become gods) is not the ladder but the tower (or ziggurat). The people of Babel said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4).

In contrast to the tower, the ladder describes God coming to us. The only biblical ladder of significance is Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28. In his dream Jacob sees angels “ascending and descending” a ladder that stretches into the heavens and the Lord standing beside him talking to him (v. 12). After considering the dream, Jacob says, “Surely Yahweh is in this place—and I did not know it!” And later, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv 16, 17). The Ladder didn’t take Jacob to God, nor did it bring God to Jacob, rather it revealed to Jacob that God was already in this place.  In other words, the Ladder is actually the metaphor the Bible uses to describe the revelation of God’s saving presence. (This is no doubt why messengers, or angels, are ascending and descending the ladder — they are revealing God’s presence and promise.)

Jesus later picks up the concept of the Gate of Heaven to describe himself. “Amen. Amen. I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the Gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9). On the other hand, Jacob’s other term, “house of God,” has come to describe the Church – the place God resides on earth, within each and every Christian corporately. Both are thoroughly earthly terms. There is no going to heaven to get to God. God is already here and it is Jesus Christ who reveals him to us; it is Jesus Christ who allows us to enter God (the Gate), and it is Jesus Christ who allows God to enter us (the House of God). Both are encompassed in the ladder metaphor.

And this is how the Ladder has been generally understood throughout Christian history. The Ladder is Jesus Christ. So you can see why Christians, such as Romanos, who have an acquaintance with Christian spiritual literature, might be so offended by Pr. Richard’s article. It sounds like he wants us to say goodbye to Jesus Christ, the Ladder, in favor of some disembodied rational concept of faith in grace or something. … oops!

I suspect Matt Richard is not completely ignorant of this classical Ladder Theology. But the concept of Jesus as the Ladder has been often misunderstood within Evangelical Protestantism because of how Evangelicals typically use the term “salvation.” This in turn colors how the ladder metaphor is understood.

For Evangelicals “salvation” is most frequently a synonym for “justification.” How are we saved? An Evangelical might typically turn to Paul’s statement in Rom 3:28. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Or possibly they would prefer his statement a few verses earlier. “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23f).

But “salvation” is a much broader term that refers to a lifelong process beginning with election, to justification, to sanctification, and finally to glorification. So it is that Jesus and the apostles sometimes say that we will be saved in the future. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt. 10:22). And once we understand this correctly broad sense of salvation, then we can affirm that while the only way to be justified is by faith, faith alone cannot save us. As James says (in the only biblical text that uses the phrase “faith alone”), “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

In the previous essay I described this as the Arena of Grace. We get into the Arena through grace alone. We are guided through the obstacles by grace alone. We are nourished in the Arena by grace alone. But, we have to do something in the Arena; we can’t just sit around basking in God’s grace, because a person is justified by works — by what he does in the Arena of Grace — and not by faith alone. Paul describes this broad understanding of salvation very well in 1 Cor. 3:12-15

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – [13] the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. [14] If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. [15] If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

This is the same “works and not faith alone” that James is talking about. We are already justified by “faith apart from works prescribed by the law,” but now we must “endure to the end” by building on the foundation of Christ. Some of our works will be self-serving. Some of our works will be holy. And in the end the self-serving work will be burned up. Even if we manage to never get the hang of the Christian life and all of our Christian works are self-serving, and every last bit is burned up, we (that is, “the builder”) will still be saved, as Paul says in v. 15. Salvation – the whole process from beginning to end – is only by God’s grace and that means that even if we muck it up something terribly, we will still be saved, because it is by grace. But this doesn’t nullify the reality that all this occurs within the Arena of Grace where “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” in James’ words.

John of Sinai described this whole Pauline process of salvation from justification to glorification, along with the burning of that which will not endure, back in the sixth century, in a book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book was so influential that John of Sinai came to be known as John Climacus (which, translated means, “John of the Ladder”). Many Christians, for centuries, have read this book every Lenten season in order to be reminded how they might enter into closer fellowship and union with their Savior Jesus Christ. But if one mistakenly limits “salvation” to just the beginning step of “justification,” this spiritual classic will be offensive because it is “treatise on avoiding vice and practicing virtue so that at the end, salvation can be obtained.”

That doesn’t sound much like Paul’s statements in Rom 3:23-28, thus Evangelicals might take offense. But to throw out the Ladder in favor of grace alone is rather opposite of what Jesus says in Mt. 10, what James says in ch. 2, or what Paul says in 1 Cor. 3, thus Orthodox and other Christians who embrace the historical faith (and the more inclusive understanding of salvation) will take offense. Hopefully all of us can come to appreciate how these terms have developed in different Christian communions and understand that each expression is an attempt to be faithful to the incarnate Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.” And then maybe we call all say together, “Goodbye Tower! Hello Ladder!”

The Self-Discipline of Faith

The classic biblical text on Christian self-discipline, in my opinion, is 1 Cor 9:24-27.

[24] Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. [25] Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. [26] So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; [27] but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

For Protestants (and here I’m thinking of myself) who had their faith nurtured in the context of “grace alone” theology, this paragraph poses potential interpretive problems. Paul is saying it’s not merely as simple as “grace alone.” The problem becomes even more pronounced when Paul puts these thoughts on Christian discipline into the context of God’s grace in history in the next few verses (1 Cor 10: 1-14).

[1] I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, [2] and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, [3] and all ate the same spiritual food, [4] and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

The third part of the argument begins in vs. 5ff where Paul says, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. [6] Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.”

And what did they do that Paul described as desiring evil?

  • idolatry (v. 7 )
  • sexual immorality (v. 8 )
  • putting Christ to the test (v. 9 )
  • complaining (v. 10 )

He summarizes the argument thus far in v. 12ff.

[12] So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. [13] No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Following his summary he once again returns to the subject of grace: “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? …” (1 Cor 10:15, 16). This testing comes in the context of pure grace: spiritual food (10:3f) for the Israelites and the Sacramental meal (10:16) for the church.

Because the passages on self-discipline (9:24-27) and the reference to divine testing (10:12) are separated by eleven verses, the connection between them isn’t immediately obvious. But when the larger context is considered it seems clear that Paul is talking about the same thing from slightly different perspectives. Life in God (under the divine cloud/in the Spirit) is a life of grace. It is God coming to us and guiding us (the cloud) and it is God providing every spiritual need (the manna/the Sacraments). This is a description of what could be called “grace alone” and can be incorporated into our lives through “faith alone.”

So it is that the arena we live in is defined by grace. Grace gets us into the arena. Grace guides us through the obstacles of the arena. Grace is our only spiritual nourishment while in the arena. That is the proper meaning of “grace alone.”

But it’s at this point that the grace/works binary (which I discussed in relation to Pelagianism in the previous essay) completely breaks down as an accurate description of the obstacles to the Christian life. As I said in that essay, although “grace vs works” or “faith vs works” (which leads to the affirmations of “Grace alone – Faith alone – Scripture alone”) is the handy shorthand descriptor for the results of the Pelagian controversy, it is not the only way to describe the controversy. Pelagius, because he was enamored with Stoicism, was focused on “self.” The Church recognized this focus was in error, and defended the traditional teaching that self must be submitted to God, and that a focus on God was the only way to properly fulfill and give meaning to the self.

Thus, the better binary to describe the Pelagian controversy is God vs self (in contrast to Grace vs works). And when we set aside the misleading binary (grace/works) for the more historically accurate binary (God/self), what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 10 makes a great deal of sense.

We live in the arena of Grace. Paul describes this arena of “grace alone” in 1 Cor. 10:1ff. Our ancestors (and the Church, for “these things occurred as examples for us” v. 6) were all “under the cloud,” “passed through the sea,” were baptized into Moses in the cloud and sea,” “ate of the same spiritual food,” and “drank the same spiritual drink” from “the spiritual rock” [ie, Jesus Christ].

But merely living in this Arena of Grace, as if God does everything and we simply receive the benefits, will lead to judgment. “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness” (v. 5). The children of Israel lost patience with Moses when he went to the mountain to receive the law. The result is that they became focused on self rather than God, who in spite of the grace surrounding and embracing them, was invisible behind the storm clouds enveloping the mountain top. Because of this focus on self, they entered into idolatry. And this story of self vs. God occurs repeatedly both as they travel through the wilderness and after they cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

How do we avoid the pitfalls of the children of Israel? Self-discipline. But not the sort of self-discipline that focuses on self, rather the sort of self-discipline that allows me to move beyond myself and focus on God and my relationship with God.  Paul goes so far as to say that “I punish (literally, “to beat black and blue”) my body and enslave it (“to treat as a slave with severity and discipline”)” (9:27).

Before we make too much of Paul’s description in v. 27, we need to make clear that he’s not describing self-mutilation. The context is specifically athletic training and athletic discipline. By using these stark terms he makes clear that he’s not describing the weekend athlete who, on a whim, goes for a run, or joins a recreational soft ball league in order to get a little bit of exercise. Paul makes clear that when he calls us to Christian discipline (9:24ff) in order to properly respond to the “testing” in the arena of grace (10:13), he is speaking of discipline that is organized, consistent, and hard. In other words, it’s work! But this spiritual work can only be accomplished in one place: the arena of pure grace.  The only nourishment available that will strengthen us for this work is the grace of God (the spiritual food). Furthermore, the goal of this “work” is not to become a fulfilled and complete person who can then step into the presence of God (this is the error of Pelagius). Paul’s point is that we’re already in the presence of God. The goal of this work is to take hold of the grace that is above us, below us, surrounds us, and feeds us. The goal is that I may more fully experience God’s presence and enter more deeply into the divine fellowship that is only available to me inside the Arena of Grace.

This is the proper meaning of Grace. Pastor Richard, in his otherwise excellent essay on ladder theology, concludes by saying,

God doesn’t need our ladders to descend to us, nor do we have to meet him halfway. The reason being He has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and He daily comes to us in His Word and Sacraments. God has fully descended to us and He reaches out His hand to us and delivers His forgiveness to us without a ladder!

Goodbye ladder, goodbye climbing and hello grace alone!

This is a good description of the Arena of Grace, but it begs the question of what the Christian life is all about after conversion. Is the Christian life just sitting around feeding on God and accepting his forgiveness? Pr. Richard never addresses this inevitable next step in his argument, but Paul tells us unequivocally that if we think that’s it, we are in danger of being disqualified. Once we grasp the significance that we do indeed live in the Arena of Grace, then we can proceed with the tasks the Arena offers us, surrounded above and below with God’s grace, and nourished with God’s grace from his spiritual food. Once we understand that by Grace alone we live in the presence of God, then we can get serious about getting to know God intimately by attacking the Arena of Grace with gusto and the strength that only comes from grace.

Pelagius – Beyond the Jargon

Pelagius was a fifth century monk who probably would have been forgotten were it not for the herculean efforts of Augustine of Hippo to publicize his writings for the sole purpose of condemning him. For a while Pelagius’ teachings were the “flavor of the month” in North Africa, and because of Augustine’s sustained critique, a council (the Council of Carthage) was called, his ideas were condemned, and he was anathematized a heretic. It’s an odd way to achieve infamy.

If you were paying attention in Church History class, you would have learned that Pelagius rejected the doctrine of “Original Sin.” One facet of that doctrine is that humans are completely helpless spiritually and grace is therefore the essential element of salvation. In contrast to this, Pelagius rejected the impotence of the human condition. Instead, he proposed that sin was natural and in no way prevented one from achieving salvation.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains it,

[Pelagius] regarded the moral strength of man’s will (liberum arbitrium), when steeled by asceticism, as sufficient in itself to desire and to attain the loftiest ideal of virtue. The value of Christ’s redemption was, in his opinion, limited mainly to instruction (doctrina) and example (exemplum), which the Saviour threw into the balance as a counterweight against Adam’s wicked example, so that nature retains the ability to conquer sin and to gain eternal life even without the aid of grace.

If we jump ahead one thousand years, the then developing Protestant doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone were far more radical than the Roman Catholic dogmas of Original Sin, Grace, and Merit, and the Protestants, in turn, accused the Roman Catholic Church of the Pelagian Heresy because, in the Protestant view, Rome did not embrace salvation as pure grace and pure gift, based on their radicalized interpretation of Augustine’s critique of Pelagius.

The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, didn’t get too excited about Pelagius. It’s not because they had any sympathy for his wacky ideas. It’s rather that the doctrine of Original Sin, especially as developed by Augustine, is considered to be in error.  Augustine taught that all humans inherited guilt from Adam. He believed that sin was inherited from the parent. (It is this doctrine of inherited sin and guilt that led the Roman Church to institute the rather bizarre doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though there is nothing biblical nor traditional about the doctrine, it became necessary in Roman Catholic theology precisely because of Augustine’s teaching about Inherited Guilt and the church’s doctrine of Original Sin.)

In the period leading up to the Council of Carthage, it became clear that the condemnation of Pelagius was going to be framed specifically in the Augustinian version of Original Sin and especially of Inherited Guilt. This put the Eastern bishops in a precarious position. The Roman version of original guilt had never been formally condemned, but it was a clearly flawed teaching (from the Eastern perspective). So even though they rejected Pelagius on the grounds that his theology was a revival of Greek Stoicism in Christian theological garb, they could not support the Council of Carthage because its reasons for condemning Pelagius were in error.  In short, Pelagianism and the Church’s response to it are a uniquely Western phenomenon.

All of that can get pretty confusing. Because of the passage of time (Pelagius lived over 1500 years ago) and all of this he-said-she-said argumentation that is rooted in foreign ways of thought, it’s hard to get a bead on Pelagius. The result is that even though the complex historical context has been lost, Pelagianism has become a short hand method of dismissing anyone or any idea that is thought to not take the necessity of divine grace seriously enough, and more specifically, any doctrine of salvation that involves any activity that might be construed as works.

But this distilling of the whole Pelagian controversy into a single idea (“works” vs “grace”) is reductionist and blinds us to why Pelagius’ teachings were so attractive in the first place. I therefore want to put him into a contemporary context. Pelagius’ ideas were essentially a revival of Greek Stoicism. Pelagius equated the Christian doctrine of salvation with the Stoic concept of “virtue,” which is embodied in the “wise man” of ancient Greek philosophy. The “wise person” is whole and balanced, well-rounded and interested in a broad variety of ideas. He/she desires excellence but not excess, lives with gusto but never with decadence. In a word, this is the Stoic ideal.

And as I hope you are aware, Stoicism is experiencing a huge revival in the Western world since the turn of the millennium. There are now Stoic philosophers (click on the “visit my literary website” link to read about his book on contemporary Stoicism, which is a popular college text book), Stoic Churches, Stoic National Communities and Conferences, etc. After the excesses of the last few decades have come back to threaten our civilization and in an era where endless, unchecked growth is no longer possible, the seemingly simple balance of Marcus Aurelius (the most famous Stoic) is profoundly attractive.

Stoicism is gaining popularity because it has all the trappings of committed faith without any of the core commitments (other than a commitment to self – and here is where we discover the contemporary significance of Pelagianism.) In an era when Western Christianity is unfortunately stained by decadence, Stoicism is a mildly ascetical approach to life which focuses on personal well-being through discipline and self-improvement. Furthermore, it has a sense of proper limits. (And in this way distinguishes itself from the often obscenely self-gratifying prosperity gospel groups of American Evangelicalism – a distinction that becomes increasingly important in a society where ostentatious demonstrations of wealth are increasingly treated with contempt.)

The contemporary spirit of the age evidently desires sensible limits (the essence of Stoicism) and self-gratification (the essence of Pelagianism). The contemporary danger is not grace vs. works – the binary that immediately comes to mind when Pelagius is mentioned – but Self vs. Savior. Whether it’s priests having sex, Prosperity Gospel proponents and their private jets, or Presbyterian (or Orthodox) bureaucrats and their lust for power or control, authentic Christian witness is drowned out by all this dissipation. The “Savior” of church institutions this corrupt is hard to take seriously by outside observers. And in this context old heresies that stand apart from and against the traditional institutions (such as Arianism and Pelagianism) are resurgent. But if we hope to understand the spirit of the age we need to move past the handy-dandy short hand in our heretical lexicon and appreciate why the heresies were attractive in the first place.

Why can’t “self” be a savior? Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jack LaLanne, Eckhart Tolle, and Dr. Al Sears (and the list could go on and on) have all presented compelling evidence that the disciplined self is quite capable of a full life within limits. In this environment we need to move beyond our enchantment with the “works/grace question” and speak to the reality that the “self” (or more technically, the fallen self) is ultimately self-destructive when left to itself.

But in order to proclaim this message effectively, the Christian must take seriously today’s ascetic mood. How does our longing for self-improvement fit into the Christian understanding that self, left to itself, will destroy rather than improve itself? I will argue that there is a deep desire for authentic Christian asceticism – for the discipline of faith – which can only be practiced in the light of the overwhelming brightness of divine grace. And if that is true, it means we have to critically reconsider the common jargon of salvation by grace alone. (And let me be absolutely clear: what we need to reconsider is not the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, but the common jargon that surrounds it.) But that is another essay.

A Bit More About Works Apart from Grace

After reading my essay on Sophrony and Jung, my sister sent me a link to a very good article over at the Steadfast Lutherans site entitled, Let Us Say Goodbye to Ladder Theology! It’s a good essay on grace from an anti-Pelagian perspective. It punctuates the issue I raised about our tendency toward do-it-yourself salvation.

I’ve not said a lot about Pelagius over the years, but this link gives me the opportunity to do just that. So you can expect an essay or two on Pelagius in the near future.

What Can Possibly Be Better than the Kentucky Derby?

(And this post is written by somebody who used to live in Louisville!!!)

This summer a horse named Arrrrr! is running at Saratoga Race Track and listening to the announcer is hilarious. (The links are to YouTube videos, by the way.)

I first heard this first one on the Dan LeBatard radio show (and laughed until I had tears running). I replayed it for Brenda and she too laughed ’til she cried.

Here’s another one, which isn’t quite as funny (imo), but also includes “Blazing Buddha” and “Golden Goose Gut” running side by side with “Arrrrr!,” which is sort of amusing in and of itself.


Elder Sophrony and Carl Jung

This is eventually going to be an essay about the Orthodox Christian monk, Elder Sophrony, and one of the most famous sayings he ever uttered. But before we get to him, I need to put my ideas into context by commenting on the influence of Carl Jung in the modern world.

Jung might be described as the religious man’s psychologist and such a claim might seem odd to those who know him as a thoroughly secular thinker. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is to understand, as I have explained earlier, that Western Christianity is essentially secular. This strong tendency toward secularism is a result of the embrace of the empirical world view that grew out of the Enlightenment. It was good at breaking things into smaller and smaller pieces but not good at putting them back together into a meaningful whole. Because of this lack of integration, Western Christianity has had a profound difficulty holding on to God’s deep and dappled presence in creation, resulting in a determined drift toward secularism.

And this “breaking apart” vs. “putting together” is the key difference between Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud. Freud approached the psyche scientifically and broke it into what he hoped would be understandable parts. Jung, after immersing himself in Freud’s method, recognized that in order to understand a human one had to understand him as a complete being. But Jung did not use the old Christian categories and methods to put the human psyche back together. Using unifying categories such as “archetypes,” “the collective unconscious,” and “synchronicity,” he was able to understand the human psyche in a manner remarkably similar to ancient religious traditions without all the religious baggage (ie, morality).

But in order to unify Freud’s disassembled parts, Jung had to become what I will call an “athlete of the mind.” I use this term because Christians who are very advanced in their Christian faith and have a profound understanding of the connection between the material and immaterial, or the spiritual disciplines and physical disciplines which together reveal reality and lead to divine union, were historically called “ascetics.” Askesis, in Greek is a term that refers to an athlete. Thus, the ascetics were spiritual athletes.

And the Christian monks and ascetics were not unique. Monks in other religious traditions, most especially in India, have advanced to remarkable religious levels, apart from Jesus Christ. Their severe disciplines have led them to understand the profound and inherent relationship between mind and body and the transcendence that is possible when the power of that relationship is tapped. Unfortunately those ascetic practices, because they are accomplished apart from Christ, do not lead to salvation (which is union with God in the context of the Body of Christ), although they do lead to integration within the individual, and often integration of the individual into the community.

What has become clear following the publication of The Red Book, Jung’s most private diary of his research from 1914 to 1993 (pub. In 2009), is that Jung was an athlete of the mind in a manner not unlike the Christian and Buddhist monks are spiritual athletes. The primary difference is that his asceticism was self-consciously secular, although it sought to plumb the depths of the connection between body, mind and spirit in order that a person might become integrated with himself as well as with the community (which, for Jung, was the rather bizarre world of archetypes and the collective unconscious).

It is also true that Jung’s way of viewing the world has become pervasive. Freud’s name may be the one associated with psychiatry; Jung’s methods, on the other hand, are the ones that have entered into our modern way of thinking and doing things. (The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, for instance, which is a direct application of Jung’s typologies, has become so pervasive and authoritative that even Brenda and I were required to take it by both the Bible College we attended and our marriage counselor in order to determine our suitability for each other in marriage.)

How did Jung plumb the depths of the human psyche? How did he come to know as much as he knew? Essentially (according to his own claim in The Red Book) he became psychotic in order to understand the limits, the depths, and the shape of the mind. In one of his most remarkable metaphors, describing this process of entering into psychosis without any assurance that he could return to normalcy, he said that the journey to hell means to become hell oneself.

And when I heard this metaphor for Jung’s own process of self-discovery, Elder Sophrony immediately came to mind.  Elder Sophrony’s most famous saying (or at least the one with which the Western world is most enamored) is as follows:

A young monk came to Elder Sophrony and asked, “How will we be saved?” The elder was, at the moment, brewing some tea, and he said to the young monk, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”

This statement caused a great deal of trouble. [At this point I leave out part of the story for brevity.] When Sophrony later clarified his statement, he told the young monk, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

The Orthodox world in the west has been all a-twitter with what Sophrony could possibly mean both in the original statement and his “clarification.” Search the internet with the words “sophrony” and “tea” and you will get dozens, possibly hundreds, of hits of people speculating on his enigmatic words. (And now, you can add my post to that list.)

The idea of dying to oneself, of the “dark night of the soul,” of the purposeful entry into our inmost being (which is where our most stubborn sins and wickedness resides) in order to root them out, confess them, and become Christ-like is as old as Christianity itself. But Elder Sophrony recast that idea into a context which spoke to the contemporary Western world. If anything in Orthodoxy could be described as “viral” it seems that this is certainly one contemporary “saying of the Fathers” that has gone viral and captured the imaginations of Orthodox Christians throughout the West.

What is it about these two statements that would lead them to go viral? I have pondered that question a lot since I first ran into the sayings five or six years ago. But then, when I heard the very secular Carl Jung (who lived at the same time and probably breathed the same intellectual air as Sophrony) offer up the nearly identical saying, I began to suspect a cultural connection.

Karl Menninger famously asked whatever became of sin. (It’s one of the most pernicious problems in pastoral counseling, by the way. Without a lively sense of sin – of which modern Americans mostly have none – no authtentic forgiveness and healing is possible.) I believe this is the very problem Carl Jung recognized a very long time ago and sought to address. Secular people may not believe in sin, but they still must journey to hell in order to become integrated. And what they will discover on that journey is that they are hell itself. Only when they (and we!) are able to make that insight can emotional and spiritual healing truly take place.

The Orthodox Church, because of its difficult contemporary history of persecution and marginalization never passed through Modernity in the same manner that the Western churches did. It remains an essentially pre-modern church. But in America a large percentage of Orthodox Christians are converts who are very much modern and post-modern people. No doubt it’s the very stability of Orthodoxy’s pre-modern perspective that is so attractive to post-modern people.

When Elder Sophrony couched a great historical truth of the spiritual life in this very modern framework (gazing into hell rather that contemplating one’s own sin), it struck a chord among converts (and contemporary Western people in general). The more traditional language didn’t have the urgency as this new way of offering up this truth.

But Sophrony’s saying, recast in the form it is, leaves me disturbed. He was speaking in a very specific context, as elder to monk. As monks, it was their goal to become Christ-like in an utterly profound way, which would involve entering into the very depths of darkness that Christ himself knew on the cross and in the grave in order to be prepared to receive the gift of Light. But that is very advanced stuff (which is probably why the young monk was so troubled by the saying).

For those of us who have not plumbed the spiritual depths as the monks of Mt. Athos have (and, as a result, are enamored and excited by the saying rather than troubled by it), it needs to be said clearly and emphatically that Christ is the one who went to hell on our behalf. He tasted death so that we could taste life; his darkness brings us to Light. If we journey to hell and back, if we “become hell” (Jung’s phrase), if we “stand at the edge of the abyss” (Sophrony’s phrase), we do it, not on our own, but only in Christ, for Christ and Christ alone is the one who took that journey so that we could be reconciled to God.

Of course that was not an option for Jung. He did not believe in Christ’s redemptive power. It was therefore incumbent on him to do it himself. His journey to hell and back in order to find emotional wholeness was ultimately an attempt at self-salvation. And this should give us, as Christians, pause. Are we enamored with Sophrony’s saying because it rings true to historic faith or are we enamored because it is a way of sneaking a bit of self-salvation into the Orthodox way? Self-salvation has always been a great temptation to Christians. It is the very nature of sin to want to rely on self and not become humble enough to accept help from others. I can’t help but wonder if gazing over the abyss before we have our “cuppa teal” is not a re-emergence of this ancient Pelagian heresy.

Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not accusing Elder Sophrony of such a thing. But I am troubled that while the young monk was troubled by Sophrony, we are, instead, enamored with him.

Constitution? Schmonstitution! (But only in the best sense of the word!)

One of the speakers at the Missouri River Conference we attended last weekend was Mike Lawson, formerly a historian for the National Park Service and currently a partner in a Washington DC public policy consulting firm, but best known for his book, Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux (recently revised as Dammed Indians Revisited). It is shocking (although not surprising) how illegal the process was that led to the building of the five dams along the Missouri River in the Dakotas.

Americans, since the founding of the country, have always held the Constitution and the rule of law in high regard in principle, while generally holding them in contempt when they wanted to do something different. (It’s one of our quirks that so endeared us to Tocqueville.) Teaching American History I was shocked at the antics of the Washington administration during the Whiskey Rebellion. (If you weren’t paying attention during that class, it makes booth Homeland Security and Obama-care look quite civil.) And from that first administration the Constitution and rule of law increasingly became an afterthought culminating with the Jackson administration. (When I was teaching that chapter, the cadets worried I was going to pop a vein and keel over on the spot … although I suspect that they weren’t so worried about me, just that Steve Pollard, the math teacher across the hall, would see me on the floor and make them do pushups … but I digress.) And since Jackson, the constitution has often been considered a mere inconvenience — a speed bump on the path toward pet legislation.

But I was totally unaware of the Pick-Sloan legislation and numerous and sundry ways the Army Corps of Engineers dodged, not only constitutional requirements, but even the requirements of Pick-Sloan (which “dodged” the constitution … to put it politely … in the first place) in order to get the dams built.

All this was in the name of national necessity. (The 1952 Missouri River flood was a national disaster, after all. As we have learned in various wars and crises, most recently after Katrina and 9-11, no American government wants to waste a perfectly good disaster.)

It would be easy to be totally cynical about Pick-Sloan and the Army Corps of Engineers and simply group them in with that whole series of national projects which steam rolled everything from personal rights to personal property to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. (And it is admittedly loads of fun to write cynical essays!) But in this case I find it hard to play the cynicism card.

Frequently the welfare of the group outweighs the welfare of individuals. And when that happens in a society which guarantees individual liberty it can become impossible to legally and constitutionally do the right thing.


(It stands for Not In My Back Yard.) It’s probably the primary reason we are so utterly incapable, as a nation, of doing significant public works. But in the 1950s, after a series of compromises and back-room deals, Pick-Sloan was passed and a few years later, dams began to be built.

It is unconscionable that we didn’t properly reimburse the people whose land and livelihoods we, as a nation, stole (the overwhelming majority of whom were native Americans). But, the fact that the government (and if the truth be known, it wasn’t the government, but a very small handful of visionary and energetic leaders, such as Pick and Sloan) muscled this project, that sought the good of the whole in spite of the protests of a whole host of individuals, through is breathtaking.

Who knew bureaucrats could do such good through means that were so detestable?

It gives me hope that we might get a pipeline through Nebraska before I die.

Classical Liberalism: A Summary

[This essay is a summary to date of my thinking on Classical Liberalism and the Church. I am writing this as a precursor to some thoughts about Carl Jung, which will come soon in another essay.]

The thesis in much of my recent writing under the category of “Liberty” has been twofold. First, American politics and religion are both inherently Liberal. This includes Republicans and the Tea Party; this includes Evangelicals and Protestant fundamentalists. What we call Conservatism in the modern era is simply a flavor of the Classic Liberalism (or “Jeffersonian Liberalism”) espoused most famously by John Locke and applied to theology (albeit, in a far less virulent form a generation prior) by John Calvin. As Wikipedia accurately describes it,

Classical liberalism is the philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.

The second part of my argument has been that Classical Liberalism is an inherently secularizing philosophy (which constantly pressures Protestantism toward a secular form of religion). Unfortunately, “secular” is completely the wrong word to use in this context, but I know of no other term which can more adequately bear the burden of what I’m trying to say.

The classic Judeo-Christian way of thinking involves certain assumptions that make Christianity what it is. Without those assumptions, Christianity becomes something rather different than what it ought to be. Among those assumptions are a belief that the interior life of a person is real and capable of doing remarkable things and that there is an inherent link between what has come to be called our spiritual and physical existence. Our material existence (the body) can affect and change our spiritual existence for good or ill. Conversely, our spiritual existence can affect and change our material existence. And finally, among those assumptions is that just as there is an indissoluble link between material and spiritual, so there is an indissoluble link between the one and the many, or the individual and the community.

Our very humanity, our personhood, is not defined only by our material and spiritual aspects, but also by our communal aspect. A person who has cut himself off from all community is less than a person in the classical sense. One might say that a disconnected person has reverted to an aspect of their animal nature.

But Classical Liberalism brings all these relationships (material/immaterial, material/communal, and immaterial/communal) into question. Elsewhere I have traced the secular philosophies rooted in the Enlightenment to Christian practices. Here I will simply highlight the following.

First, Protestants don’t trust ascetical practices. The idea that fasting is not only an interesting and helpful suggestion but an actual necessity for spiritual growth is nearly always dismissed as a form of works religion. I would argue that this reaction to ascetical practices is not so much rooted in a fear of works salvation as it is a bifurcation of the material and immaterial world. It assumes that salvation is primarily spiritual, not physical (as if those two realms can be separated!).

Second, Protestants don’t trust the tradition. I have frequently called this the Berean Heresy. (See, Acts 17:11, where the Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonicans because not only did they receive the word, they “examined the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”) Protestants typically believe that a truth from scripture cannot be truth unless it is verified by my own personal study. In this manner, the individual is set as judge over the community and the whole idea that the Holy Spirit reveals himself to the community rather than the individual (Mt. 18:20) is rejected in favor of a privatistic interpretation of scripture. This is a break between the immaterial person (the mind) and the community.

Third, there is a break between the material person and the community. Protestants (and American Catholics!) tend not to trust outside authority. Our churches are volunteer organizations with no real authority over members. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith tend to be suggestions rather than iron-clad requirements for membership. And while many denominations have some sort of authority structure, the idea of a bishop as the divinely appointed protector of the faith is anathema.

Because of the bifurcation (or in this case, the trifurcation) of the material, immaterial, and communal existence, contemporary Western Christianity is not whole or complete. It is in this sense that I use the word “secular.” Contemporary Christianity goes about its religious practices viewing reality in much the same way as her secular counterparts.

This breakdown is secular, not only because it is incomplete, but because it undermines our perception of the very activity of God in the world. How does God speak to us? Contemporary Christians embrace the idea that God speaks to me, to my heart, that he reveals his will to me. But what if the Bishop said I was supposed to do something that I didn’t want to do? Would that be God speaking? What if I believed I was called to be a pastor, but the church (the congregation or the presbytery, etc.) said I wasn’t qualified? Would I accept that as the voice of God, or would I go find another group more amenable to my personal revelation? The very fact that we ask the question at all belies the fact that we do not trust the community, only our own inner heart.

Our trifurcation (the breaking apart) of material, immaterial, and communal means we distrust the very presence and voice of God in its completeness. In that sense, we are a thoroughly secular religious tradition.

One of the other results is that we fail to appreciate the fullness of our humanity. The human mind, apart from God, is capable of incredible things and can even influence and change the physical world. Because of the Western distrust of the non-material this inherent ability of the non-material person is questioned in both science and religion. But Christians can’t so easily dismiss the spiritual world, so this power is often dismissed as demonic.

And yes the world of spirits, both fallen (demons) and unfallen (angels) is real. But so is the spiritual aspect of humans. One of the products of the secularization of the Western church is the incredible diminishing of our humanity because of our tendency to relegate all powerful or materially significant spiritual activity to angels and demons.

Ah, but aren’t we spiritually dead? Aren’t we incapable of all these things except through the Holy Spirit’s life within us? The classic Christian tradition claims that spiritual death is separation, not annihilation. The death of spirit means that it is subject to corruption because it is cut off from God. But even though it can no longer function to its full capability, because it is corrupt (ie, rusted, like iron is corrupt with that most power solvent, oxygen, and becomes mixed with iron oxide, or rust, and thus weakened), it is still a powerful force.

In this sense, even though cut off from the true God and true religion, the monks of Nepal can do astounding things, not because they are controlled by demons, but because they are not secular and understand the profound relationship between the material and the immaterial.

This is why a careful definition of terms is so critical to understanding the failures of Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Protestant Fundamentalism, and the Western Church in general. We are all Liberals. We have all been liberated from responsibilities of the classical world view and are now free to do as we see best without the burden of ancient rules and customs and without the meddling of other people in our lives. In the process of gaining the ephemera of freedom, we have lost the Body, and in losing the Body, we have lost many of the facets of our connection to God himself. We have been reduced to a largely secular religion.